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By Peter Vankevich
The Eastern Kingbird is a large feisty tryant flycatcher that is easily identified by a large black head and bill, dark gray back, and white breast and belly.The clincher for accurate identification is a white band at the end of its tail.
In spite of its geographic name, they are widely distributed throughout much of North America, except for the most of the far west and southwest. They breed well into Canada and winter in South America as far south as Argentina.
During breeding season, these kingbirds feed primarily on insects and will hover as they search and catch large insects in air. They will often return to the same perching point.
The name kingbird (tyrannus) derives from its aggressive behavior and they will attack and drive off much larger birds such as crows, vultures and hawks passing through their territory, though they will tolerate small non-threatening birds.
Although usually seen solitary, they will migrate in flocks, sometimes perching on the wires and trees in Ocracoke village.
The song is a series of high tinkling notes.
Best Time to see: They arrive on the island starting in March, migrants pass through in larger numbers in April and again in mid-August into September
Where: Throughout the island where there are open areas with nearby thick bushes and perching spots including wires, fences, branches and mounds of sand and vegetation.
(Audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Much has been written about their feisty personality. Here are some colorful descriptions of their fearless behavior made over the years from Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds (1942), whose primary author is Arthur Cleveland Bent.
Gilbert H. Trafton (1908) wrote of an attack upon himself at a nest he was watching. “Whenever I approached near enough the nest to set up the camera, the kingbirds flew at me furiously, poising themselves above me and then darting quickly at my head, now coming near enough to strike me with their bill. In no case was blood drawn, but, as they usually struck about the same spot each time, I was glad of an excuse to cover my head with a cloth while focusing the camera. . . . They never attacked me unless both birds were present, and even then only one came near enough to strike me.”
Alexander. D. DuBois (1910) : “The kingbird can be more than a mere annoyance to its traditional enemy. I saw a pair attack a crow which was flying near their nest. They made him croak, and one of them perched on his back and pulled out a lot of his feathers, which came floating down.”
Frederick C. Lincoln (1925), writing of North Dakota, says: “On July 20 I watched a Kingbird attack a hawk and saw it alight on the back of the larger bird, to be carried 40 to 50 yards before again taking flight.”
J. Murray reports a similar observation: “Near Lexington, Virginia, I saw a Kingbird chase an American egret for a hundred yards or more, practically riding on its back.”
John R. Williams (1935) tells of a kingbird which repeatedly attacked a low-flying airplane. He says: “The courage and audacity of this bird in attacking a noisy and relatively huge airplane was certainly extraordinary.”
The Eastern Kingbird was not always victorious as these observations note:
Isaac E. Hess (1910): “I have seen the Kingbird victor in every battle except one. In this dispute ‘Tyrannus’ beat a hasty retreat from the onslaughts of an angry Yellow Warbler.”
William Brewster (1937) relates another instance of the defeat of Tyrannus: “Despite his notorious daring in attacking hawks and crows, the kingbird sometimes turns tail and flees ignominiously, like many another bully, when boldly faced by birds no larger or better fitted for combat than himself. An instance of this happened today [August 10, 1907] when I saw a Sapsucker pursue and overtake a Kingbird in a cove of the Lake [Umbagog] . . . . As the two were passing me within ten yards I could see the Sapsucker deal oft-repeated blows with his sharp bill at the back of the Kingbird who was doubling and twisting all the while, with shrill and incessant outcry. . . . After the birds had separated the Sapsucker alighted very near me on a stub, when I was surprised to note that it was a young one, apparently of female sex”.